currere as narrative pedagogy

Here’s a plenary paper I gave this weekend at the annual meeting of the International Association for Human Caring. I may have played the history a little loose to make the point to a non-curriculum audience, but I think the larger argument stands: medicine IS doing a better job than we are of focusing on the role of individual stories in caregiving, and the “black leather jacket” boys remain in full sway. Looking forward to some discussion of this one from my colleagues among their ranks. Enjoy your summer!

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you today, though I am a stranger in a strange land. I believe I am the only educator attending this conference who is primarily concerned with K-12 school settings. Although I have spent many years in healthcare settings, my caring context is the school, not the hospital. Nonetheless, the extraordinary nurses I share the dais with today have helped me understand the textures of practice in my world, as I have theirs. We have so much to say to each other.

Today I would like to open our time together by trying for the first time to explain the ways I think the practice of narrative lets the worlds of education and healthcare inform each other.

First, I’ll tell you a story from my discipline about how we have decided what matters most in caring educational practice, and how I think we got it wrong. Then I’ll explain how the use of narrative in healthcare settings has given what education had lost back to me. And finally I’ll suggest what this evolving nexus means for both of our practices.

I’ll start with a story of internecine conflict. Sayre’s Law dictates that the reason academic battles are so fierce is because the stakes are so appallingly low. But I feel the stakes were very high in this fight, dealing as it did with the very core of why we do what we do in school. So let me sing you the song of my people. I think you will recognize the tune.

Almost fifty years ago, one of our most audacious curriculum dreamers, Joseph Schwab, pronounced the field of curriculum studies “moribund.” Stasis was attributed to unquestioned applications of single-perspective theories to education. To revitalize our work – to make ourselves more than simple doers of curriculum prepared for us and assessors of whether or not we had met established objectives – Schwab called for renewed interest in “the practical,” by which he meant a deliberative, interdisciplinary process that was attentive to reality: situated, relevant, responsive to experience.

In the wake of this call, curriculum studies was “reconceptualized” as a site to critically engage the values and practices that describe school in our culture. Two main strands of reconceptualization emerged: first, a materialist critique, which embraced neomarxist understandings of the role of power in education as underlying the observed tendency of institutions to replicate the existing social order. And second, a phenomenological, autobiographical, and psychological critique, which sought to understand curriculum as currere, a “course run” by successive retrenchings in one’s own experience and projection of that experience into future action.

Currere understands curriculum as chronological, situated, a constant reinterpretation of past experiences that reorients us toward what is not yet the case. These two forces struggled for a few years for ideological and epistemological dominance of the newly reborn field, and finally the materialist critique ascended. Gradually, critical curriculum work became synonymous with neomarxist analysis of power, while the more reflective work of currere paced the field’s edges through its own journals and conferences.

I trained in the currere tradition, and so confess to having personal skin in this game. But what most interests me for this audience is why things went the way they did – and that “why” might ring some bells. Because the materialist critique was outward-focused: concerned with structures (even through post-structuralist lenses), with social justice and the end to hegemonic maintenance of existing power relations as its clear goal. It was a muscular critique, and tended to be masculinist and even sexy in its rhetoric: a memorable skirmish caricatured its practitioners as “the marxists, who identified autobiography with bourgeois idealism, a retreat to interiority by those unwilling to don their leather jackets and storm the barricades, or at least picket General Dynamics.”

Currere, on the other hand, suffered dismissal as not only bourgeois, but navel-gazing, irrelevant, esoteric. To stake a claim for the role of individual experience and dyadic connection in curriculum was to be consigned to the basement with the other misfit toys: to be the shadow. Camille Paglia drew the dichotomy beautifully in Sexual Personae between “apollonic” and “chthonic” impulses in literature: the first clean, visible, attainable, the other hidden, murky, imprecise.

So the critical day in education was won by what was observable and measurable: psychologic, phenomenologic, and autobiographical perspectives were abjected. To work in education meant either joining a mainstream educational milieu that was as concerned with setting objectives and measuring their attainment as ever, or an equally well-boundaried critical stance that tried to dismantle it through analysis of the observable workings of class and power. By disposition and training mine became the voice of a minority report, and my work the writing of an unread amicus brief.

You know: of course this is how things played out. Common sense always feels better dealing with the observable. The high modern notion of care, in education and health, values noting what is observable and making coherent, replicable responses to it.

And here’s where your story crosses mine. Healthcare strives to manage quality outcomes through measurement, and its critics tend to focus on observable structural impediments to quality care, both administrative (cost and waste management, handwashing checklists) and social (race and ethnicity, language barriers, “cultural competence” efforts, etc). Medicine – the most scientific of caring practices – is way out front on observing and responding to the objective data. Stories are secondary, nice-to-have not have-to-have.

But when I joined the faculty of a medical school for five years and went searching for other caring practitioners who shared my conviction that interiority and self-reading were essential parts of sustainable practice, I was amazed to find that medicine also fostered a rich subculture of story-telling and story-listening in the name of compassionate practice.

I found the literature and medicine movement, most notably Rita Charon’s articulate and passionate argument for a concept of caring practice as requiring “narrative competence.” Also the Maine Humanities Council’s “Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare” movement, which supported reading groups of physicians, nurses and other providers that allowed them to read together stories of human suffering and caring and thereby find voice to share their own. I was amazed to find that the doctors and the nurses knew as much about honoring stories as my people did – and more. To be sure, the narrative impulse in health care haunted the dominant version as well. But it was a much hardier ghost, and getting stronger by the day.

The contours of my field’s twinned stories are limned in Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller.  You probably know that Frank advanced three modes of understanding suffering: the “chaos” narrative, with its obliterative “no-time” of endless suffering; the “restitution” narrative, which seeks to remedy suffering by overwhelming chaos with order, managing experience according to scientifically-verified algorithms that identify clear problems, then regulate and solve them. And finally, Frank’s critique of the “restitution” narrative’s tendency to do violence to the selfness of the sufferer, abandoning her at the moment her symptoms do not match the algorithms or her suffering is not healed by their fixes. He offers the “quest narrative” as an articulation of a caring practice dedicated to hearing and witnessing the unique qualities of individual suffering; as a way to walk the path of illness with the sufferer.

Here was the deepest hope of currere as I longed to practice it in my own work, and to see it practiced in the work of my students. Aspiration for communion in care that heals both parties by letting their stories meet each other out on the field beyond right and wrong. And I had to come to medicine to see it articulated with a passion my own field had disavowed. It was both an acknowledgment of the co-creative nature of healing communion, and a way to articulate education work as also healing, as a site of care.

The fruits of this narrative nexus between healthcare and education are only beginning to flower; my colleagues will share some of the insights emerging from our shared inquiry over the last three years. In closing, I’ll preview three of the most striking.

1. Institutions are not external to us; institutions are us. I mourn for our culture’s wounding institutions: schools, hospitals, and prisons, each with their own fiendish Procrustean beds of regulation that create habitus of self-control. These are all sites of trauma, but school most tragically, as emotional, mental, and intellectual damage is unthinkingly wrought upon students even in apparently benign classroom settings (to say nothing of egregious physical and sexual wounds, all too commonplace as well). I think healthcare is working harder than education right now to name the ways, in Ivan Illyich’s words, that “the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structures that house it:” that the regulating, impersonal, measure-it-to-manage-it way of being in hospitals is maleficent as surely as the rising tide of outcomes-based assessment was in schools.

And the solution to both, it seemed, has to do with a recommitment to finding the individual story in the data; to shaping institutional life to the present need of the patient or student by being that kind of caregiver. Foregrounding narrative gives us permission in our own practice to “talk back” to dominant versions of how we are to be and upon what index the value of our efforts are to be reckoned. The ways that medicine taught me to use narrative – and my grasp of the stakes if I don’t – have shaped the way I practice education.

2. The personal is not merely personal. Professional empathy is not the same thing as personal empathy: to practice as a caring professional is to be “in role,” and to accept the essentially divided nature of our professional attention. As Terry Holt notes,

As I lean against the wall, tears are coursing down my face. I am being very quiet about it, but in a very quiet way I am sobbing as freely as I know how. And meanwhile I am thinking: If this is over by twelve-thirty, I’ve got a chance of getting lunch before I replace the art line in twenty-four. The tears are streaming down my face, and I am utterly sad, haunted by memories of my father’s nearly identical death ten years before. But somewhere a voice is also thinking: Maybe today I can sign out by three.

This splitting of attention is not abandoning our patients in their need; rather, it is enabling us to actually give the best to care to all who are in our charge. This insight has deep consequences for the role of empathy in our preparation of caring professionals. In the New Yorker last week, Paul Bloom noted that natural empathetic responses might cloud our professional judgment about where the greatest need lies. Wondering at the warehouse filled with unrequested plush animals that stands in Newtown, Connecticut today, the millions of dollars that rolled into that affluent community, while twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, he reached for a similarly professional deployment of empathy:

 Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family – that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same values of those we love. That’s not a call for a world without empathy…the problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognize what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow feeling needed to convert intelligence into action. But a spark may be all that’s needed.

 Story-making and story-witnessing is where we stay in touch with that spark, and cultivate our capacity to catch fire. We need a more complex notion of empathy that both meets the world’s bottomless needs and gives us a structure within which to make complex prioritization decisions.

3. Self-care is other-care. To ably hear another’s story – to be capable of leaning-in to witness and hold another’s experience in your attending – requires commensurate self-care. In our institution’s Honors seminar on “Narrative and the Caring Professions,” we bring together future teachers, nurses, physicians, dentists, veterinarians, and allied health students in a joint exploration of stories of caring and professional formation. As we discuss their perceptions of the nature of the professions that await them, so many of them equate their capacity to care with their tolerance for self-denial: “I won’t have time to eat or go to the bathroom until 1:00;” “I’m not in it for the money, anyway”; “I’m just there to love those kids up.” Each of these statements echoes with the way that status is assigned and taken away in our culture to caring professionals, and they reveal a tendency among students to set themselves up as the unfailing source of energy and nurture: a tendency we know predispose young professionals to burnout. How best to support these students in treasuring the impulse to give and love that brings them to this work, while also exercising the self-protection and self-care that will guard them against exhaustion, exploitation, and compassion fatigue?

We start with the sharing of stories of others who have walked their path. Body of Work by Christine Montross and Educating Esme are two autobiographical narratives of professional formation – the first through a year-long gross anatomy class, the second through a first year of teaching. What vivid stories these authors tell of the importance of self-care and the consequences when it’s not practiced! And as we discuss their stories, we see the uncanny capacity of discussing someone else’s story to draw out one’s own. Students are amazed, then grateful, to see how their own profession’s deepest values can be better articulated by a member of another. Interdisciplinarity becomes the gateway to a deeper understanding of sustainable compassion as a human practice, not merely a professional one.

So, thank you, colleagues in caring, for teaching me my own work better than my own field could; for helping me reconceive an energetic narrative practice that embraces the ambiguous and the subjective as the engines of practice, not their obstacles. I am in your debt, and will work to strengthen the connections across our fields that our small collaboration has begun – to the good of both, and most of all for the students who place in us their confidence that we will train them up in the way they should go. Thank you.

buy our soap

Kermit4I am thinking about Kermit the Frog this morning. Noble, long-suffering, earnest Kermit: puzzled by the ways the world around him makes life more complicated than it is, but committed to working within it anyway. This mix of energy, compassion, and bewilderment is what made him the anchor at the heart of The Muppet Show. He was the John Entwistle that rooted the whole chaotic thing to the ground no matter what blew up in rehearsal, ensuring that it would get to the stage ready for the big show regardless. That’s the core of our love for him. He’s the ultimate order Muppet, and while we love to laugh at the chaos compadres that surround him, we want to live in the world he facilitates.

Kermit’s on my mind because of what my Governor had to say this week about the need to “rebrand” my state’s storied University system, to make it more responsive to market demands and therefore better suited to meet the needs of my state’s young people (or, as he might have it, “emerging workforce”). Kermit had a brush with branding in his second feature film, when he finds himself in a marketing office on Madison Avenue and is asked for the opinion of the “common, ordinary frog on the street” regarding a proposed campaign.

“Ocean Breeze soap: for people who don’t want to to stink.” What do you think? Be frank.
(after a pause): I don’t like it.
(exasperated): you don’t?
Well how about, “Ocean Breeze soap: it’s just like taking an ocean cruise only there’s no boat and you don’t actually go anywhere?”
(pause): Seems a bit long. Have you tried something simple, like: “Ocean Breeze soap will get you clean”?
Wait a minute! Wait just a second! You mean, just say what the product does? No one’s ever tried that! It’s crazy! It’s nuts! We…love it!

UNC faculty (and others, nationally) have been trying to do exactly that – actually explain what we do, its value as it has been demonstrated on a much longer arc than the current market cycle, straightforwardly. It’s increasingly a hard sell, and to some extent, “our jobs are on the line.”

Ten years ago I was writing curriculum for an education nonprofit that worked aggressively to find its place in the market, and we (like so many) consumed Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great,” wherein he details how successful organizations develop their “hedgehog concept” (the thing that, in hard times, they curl up around and protect) at the intersection of what they care about most deeply, what they are equipped to be best in the world at, and what they need to drive their economic engine. He gave us lots of buzzwords (the “Flywheel Effect” stuck with me, and probably dates me when I drop it in conversation with business types). But as I recall he did not talk too much about “brand” as an outcome, as something that needed a place at the table when an organization was making its most essential, even sacred commitments about What It Would Do.

Of course not: Collins was about finding the place where passion, competence, and economic sustainability meet, not about capturing market share through recasting yourself into the mold of whatever the market is perceived as buying this year. In this he echoes my best career advice to any student who asks, and the wisdom of many others. Branding, as Kermit sagely senses, is about identifying the fear and insecurity within the consumer and convincing them – by any means necessary – that what you are selling will alleviate it. Currently, we are terrified as a people of economic insecurity (and other insecurity, but the two tend to co-occur, as I read history). As we have for decades, we displace our fears as a people onto the schools: the places that are supposed to fit our next generation to handle the world’s threats better than we perceive it did us. This fear makes us particularly vulnerable to branding efforts that cast schools as needing to produce graduates with measurable, marketable skills, and makes any entry into the marketplace that does not scan as “hard,” evidence-based,” “workplace-ready” as soft at best or dangerous / unpatriotic / wasteful at worst.

So educators are particularly vulnerable to the language arts of branding now. But it’s still not a fit for what we are doing. “Brand” is perhaps a necessary component of determining what we teach in our schools and universities – the third leg, the “economic engine” part – but it is not sufficient. “Brand” does not exhaust the responsibilities of education: to engage the student in her world, to help her locate herself within it in intersubjective relation with those that share it. These are concerns that include the necessity to support oneself and one’s family, but they do not end there. And the fact that asserting these self-evident facts about education’s role in existence makes me seem out-of-touch with market realities only attests to the success of the branders who have been hard at work to make it so. Their efforts do not change the essential truth.

To be clear, identifying and working with synergies is not necessarily craven. I am aware that my campus is committed to sustainability principles, and thrilled at how that alignment supports my own passion for helping new teachers avoid burnout and develop the capacities necessary to thrive in this work. But sustainability can’t merely be our “brand” at App: if that’s all it is, then we’ll twist what we do every which way to make it fit whatever we think folks are buying. If it represents what we are essentially terrific at, care deeply about, and can get us the financial stability we need to do our work, then full speed ahead. I think it can, and look forward to working on teacher sustainability issues in the context of institutional enthusiasm I anticipate we’ll enjoy.

But work on sustainability in education will inevitably lead to critique of the state and national principles upon which our ideas of teacher education are increasingly being built: policies that seek to eliminate job protections and tie work security and remuneration to student testing outcomes without concomitant enthusiasm for restoring sustainable working conditions, reasonable compensation, retirement and other social supports, commensurate with those accorded other professionals. The “Finland model” is exciting, indeed – wow, look at their results. Are we similarly prepared to select, train, and support our teachers at levels exponentially greater than we currently do? These are the types of questions that honest exploration of teacher sustainability will beg. It’s certainly about individual teacher capacities, but not only that – any more than student achievement is only about skilled teachers and not about the social and cultural milieu in which school happens.

Branding-speak tends to be short-sighted and ultimately cynical, in the “vote your fears not your hopes” sense: it rarely includes discussion of what really matters most in what we do. One would think, it should ultimately include discussion of how to protect the public educational trust from the vagaries of the market, not how to better tie the two together. The fact that the opposite is becoming commonsense in my state is beyond troubling. Like Kermit, I am puzzled by the world I awake to today. Like Kermit, I’ll continue working for change and speaking truth. Hopefully, the show will all come together by curtain time. It always does.

Image from Muppet Wikia, with thanks.

false fruit

ImageBeing fevered notes in advance of my participation next week in my campus’s “Great Raft Debate,” a mildly gladiatorial affair in which I and my colleagues from other fields are to harangue and berate each other for our students’ amusement (and small edification, hopefully) in support of why our discipline matters most.

Why should education make the cut?

Consider the apple.

We have always had apples in education, it seems: the apple as the symbol of the profession, a leftover from turn of the century frontier schools when itinerant teachers were given gifts of fruit and vegetables by their students’ parents to supplement their unlivable salaries. How much has changed!

Not a thing, really. We still depend upon the largesse of those we serve to approve bond measures or grant us the security of a living wage, a margin of autonomy approaching that of the humblest civil servant, the security and respect we are taught not to feel entitled to. The apple, well-polished, is still offered to evoke in us a sense of obligation, gratitude for the acknowledgement of those we serve, thanks for noticing me, thanks so much. A gift offered that could be taken back, of course – could just stop showing up on our desk, if we don’t please.

But beyond all that policy muttering: what’s in an apple? What will this symbol of domesticity offer us on our desert island? By what lights should the discipline it represents be selected as the Thing We Bring, the thing that will best guarantee that what we most care about will live on as we rebuild?

Seeds and stems, is what. Seeds and stems.

Hear me out.

Education is not really about the What. Education is about the How.

Foul! you cry. As we are talking about it in the last years, education sure seems to be all about the What! What shall the children learn, and what shall we do to them to be sure they’ve learned it? Curriculum, the common core, is all we really hear or think about these days, as if education were really about how well-furnished your mind is at the end of the process, how much you’ve crammed in there and how well you can show you’ve got it. How many shiny apples in your basket, anyway? How high your scores, how fancy your degrees?

The truth is that What is secondary to How. Did you know the fruit of the apple – the shiny, sweet part, the part you see and polish and desire – isn’t really part of the plant? It’s a “false fruit,” by which botanists mean (as far as I can gather from Wikipedia) that it doesn’t actually come from the germination of pistil and stamen by a lascivious bee. It’s a by-product of that fertilization, is all, a fortuitous result. It doesn’t even grow out of the same place as where the fertilization action happens, doesn’t really serve any purpose for the furthering of the species, except as something tasty for a predator to eat and excrete and disseminate the seeds of.

The How is about seeds and stems. It goes like this.

First, the stem is the the thing without which there can’t be an apple. Everything that matters to the apple must come through this hard, dry little thing – doesn’t look like much, but without it there’s no getting anything else downloaded from the tree. Without it, offering the little false fruit all the sun and water and dirt in the world won’t matter. And see this little dried-out flower at the bottom? That’s what’s left of the blossom – shoved down there, hidden in this obscene little dimple, a birthmark apposite the navel that you’d just as soon forget. But without it? no fruit without it, no seed, no nothing. Giving tree indeed: the poor provider in that dreadful book ended up a stump, at least, something to sit on. This, this here – this is just a bit of grit to be picked from between your teeth, stowed down here at the bottom the better to pretend it was never needed.

And the seed, neglected in this disquisition so far and, lets face it, by all of us, always. The seed of course is what comes of the apple, eventually – what becomes its own tree, making its own apples. But did you know how profoundly its “own” the seed really is? Apples seeds are “extreme heterozygotes”, which means, quote: “rather than inheriting DNA from their parents to create a new apple with those characteristics, they are instead significantly different from their parents.” You can plant an apple seed and get apples, sure – but they will always be different from the apple that produced the seed. So different that commercial apples aren’t grown from seeds, because that would cultivate an unruly, heterogenous crop: they’re grown from grafts, short-circuits of nature that feed part of the tree back into itself to force it to make more of what it is. Actual creation, for the apple, is about deep self-abnegation: the forced willingness NOT to recreate yourself in what you create. As Sweet Honey in the Rock taught:

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longings for itself
They come through you but they are not from you
And though they are with you they belong not to you

So what does all this tell me about education? Fierce lessons; essential lessons that we’ll need as we start again on our desert island.

Mainly that if we lead with the What – ANY What – we’ll just be stockpiling apples, putting our trust in something ultimately false, because it will be something ancillary to our truest and deepest being. We’ll have lots of lovely fruits to polish, certainly – some of them nutritive hopefully, some of them delicious. But they will all fade away in the light and wind of time, as certain as textbooks become irrelevant as soon as they are published.

Esteemed colleagues: your products are delicious and shiny. But they will not endure, and will not be what we most need to begin again. The apple teaches us that if we attend to our Hows, our Whats will take care of themselves. I alone up here represent the discipline of How first, What second. Education – those little old neglected seeds and stems that made all your false fruit possible. Take me with you. If you have me…God only knows what might grow. If you don’t…nothing will.

 image from Wikipedia, as above.

good enough

As both a product and a champion of public schools, I confess that I am sometimes coy about where I got my K-12 teaching experience. I think it’s because I know how teachers determine your credibility by a quick sniff test, and it starts with how you answer the question, “where did you teach?” No list of fancy degrees or slick professional development programs will rescue you from the wrong answer to that question, and my answer is, to many, wrong.

I taught in private schools, folks. “Independent” is the term of art, actually, in an effort to more specifically distinguish the values and goal of such schools. And, along the way, get some distance from Dead Poets Society, A Separate Peace, and all the public imaginings of private schools as places where blue bloods marshal social capital to the next generation in ivied halls. The fact is that I have never taught a day of public school in my life. I taught full-time 7-12 English, Spanish, and performing arts at The Field School in Washington DC from 1993-1999, with a few summer stints at Beauvoir (the National Cathedral Elementary School). Coming clean about that – and asserting that my experience is singularly relevant for future public school teachers – is what I am up to here.

What an odd way for things to play out. I had never set foot in a private school until the day I interviewed at Field. I was an Air Force brat, shuffled among elementary programs through several moves until Dad became a reservist in upstate New York and I spent seven years in their mediocre and underfunded public schools. My family moved as I started tenth grade, and I suddenly became the beneficiary of a spectacular (and spectacularly tax-based) public high school in Newt Gingrich’s district outside Atlanta. (The contrast between the schools is another post for another day: suffice to say the lunch options in my new high school cafeteria were more abundant than any restaurant I’d ever been to, and I think I saw my first BMW in the senior parking lot.)

This was how a career in education worked out for me. It wasn’t by design – if I could have figured out how to do it, I’d certainly have taught public, because that was the warp and woof of my own experience. But I decided to become a teacher late in my college career, and didn’t have time to pursue certification before finishing my BA. After spending two years in Spain I had passion for teaching language, and took two foreign language pedagogy classes that cemented that desire and helped me develop teaching chops. The first thing private schools “buy” with their independence from state certification requirements is the right to keep their own counsel about who is qualified to teach their students. In my case, Spanish fluency, a prestigious undergrad degree, two classes in teaching, and what my Dean of Faculty came to call a “put me in, Coach” attitude was enough for me to land my first job at funky little Field School.

I get a moment of uncanny thrill sometimes in my current position, wondering if what I mean when I think “school” is what my students think. Am I preparing my students for the correct world? I need to be deliberate about stuff like this, as all teachers do: we teach from our experience, after all, unless and until we make deliberate choices to do otherwise. What does my unconsidered experience have me “teaching from,” anyway? How does my experience contrast with those that await my teaching students?

In three ways, I think.

First, the nature of the teaching work itself. The level of autonomy I was granted to figure out how to organize and run my classroom, connect my students’ “real” interests to those of the curriculum, build the culture of respect and risk-taking that my students needed. I am worried sick about the long-term effect of a generation of teachers whose ultimate judgment about whether or not what they did worked has been usurped by external accountability measures. My doctoral work tried to understand how teachers negotiated tensions between their obligations to external pressures and their own inner compulsions to teach and connect. I found hopeful stories of that negotiation – successful examples of folks “rendering unto Caesar” what Caesar needed to affirm accountability and returning to their closed-door classroom to practice mostly uninhibited.

I wonder at how that world has changed in the eight short years since I completed that work. Indications are that it feels very different to teach now, and that the locus of judgment about whether or not they have succeeded is almost entirely abrogated to external powers. That’s a tragedy, for the teachers and their students. While I was of course observed and mentored and evaluated at Field, those accountability measures always returned to hopeful, “appreciative inquiry” models that sought to build my strengths on the way to ameliorating my weaknesses. Can that happen in a standard-six world? Can it happen in a PLC? I don’t know, but I know community is grown into, not assigned, and community is the ground in which new teachers thrive.

Second, the ways that community grew at Field were so essential to our development as teachers. Lack of space forced shared offices and classrooms; we were piled on each other like puppies most of the time, and the virtue of that necessity was a lot of idea-swapping, profligate cross-pollination between our classes. We spent a lot of down-time with each other on the way to meets, performances, practices – a lot of what Roland Tharp called “propinquity” and opportunities for “legitimate peripheral participation,” interactions that built competence and confidence in organic and highly-stable ways. A lot of happy hours down Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle, too; the social fabric of the place was intimately connected to its intellectual and social values, and it all added up to a marvelously supportive setting in which to get one’s teaching legs.

How can that community be emulated in a public school setting? More easily than we might first think: lots of hanging out, lots of opportunities for sharing and celebrating each other’s successes. I see the challenges of creating this community in the institutional spaces of our public schools, but it can be done. Leaders who value it make time and find resources for it, and it’s more a “low-load / high-rep” thing than an annual event anyhow. Competition is inimical to it; collaboration and celebration is conducive. Kirp’s description of school success in Union City, New Jersey barely made a ripple when it was published last month – perhaps because community-building and real, relationship-based accountability like what he describes doesn’t boil down to the bold action that reform seems to have to mean these days. But it’s what he’s talking about, and it’s what I experienced. It’s what works.

But the last difference has to be the expectations we have about what goes on in the classes themselves. I taught for six years in rooms with about fifteen students – and that was a big class. I was comfortable as heck in that environment: the great boon of my undergrad study was how much time I spent in small seminars, so I came to value the genuine back-and-forth of respectful, engaged discussion between instructor and students, students and each other. It’s What School Looks Like To Me.

My present classes are just small enough to be run as (admittedly aerobic) seminars, and I continue to be gobsmacked by how many of my students tell me ours is the first class where they’ve been given opportunity and expectation to have something to say to each other and to me. Students must know they are seen, heard, read, answered. What does it mean when so many of our future teachers come through their own public school experience and undergrad training in mostly large rooms, where their accountability for learning is more based on measurable outcomes than the dispositions developed through relationships with each other and with professors? I think I DO mean something different when I think of a classroom than many teachers do, and I think my idea – smaller, discussion-based. everyone seen and heard and attended to – is what we need. We need our teachers to develop these values and instincts for what well-administered classes look like: the buzz of intersubjective connection, not the well-regulated models of atomized experiences.

So, there are three places where my private school experience comes up against my public school commitments:

  • the level of autonomy I expect teachers should be able to have as they grow into their practice;
  • the depth and vitality of the school communities I think teachers should be welcomed into;
  • the quality of the engagement that I think teachers should be engendering in their students’ experience, and the expectations for connection that I think they should hold of themselves and their students.

As I said, I think these three values represent our best aspirations for public education, and it is an indictment of our public school investments that we have been unable to commit the resources (physical and emotional) necessary to make them a reality. Bill Ayers stirred the rhetorical pot beautifully upon the President’s re-election, and is worth quoting here at length:

Education is a fundamental human right, not a product. In a free society education is based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being; it’s constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and, conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all…

In a vibrant democracy, whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons); you sent your kids to Lab, and so did your friend Rahm Emanuel. There students found small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits, and a minimum of time-out for standardized testing. They found, as well, a respected and unionized teacher corps, people who were committed to a life-long career in teaching and who were encouraged to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit (and who never would settle for being judged, assessed, rewarded, or punished based on student test scores).

Good enough for you, good enough for the privileged, then it must be good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere—a standard to be aspired to and worked toward. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of John Dewey who founded the school you chose for your daughters, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”

In so many ways, Field emulated the best of our public desiderata of what all children should have. The fact that not all our public schools do is an indictment of our civic priorities more than our private school culture – bake sales and bombers, mindless embracing of educational “reformers” bent on their own gain in heretofore closed markets.

I don’t repent of my independent school past. Rather, I seek to carry forward the values I learned to enact in private institutions into the public school setting, where the vast majority of our need lies. Good enough for the privileged, good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere.

Thanks to earthhouse.com for the image.

ugly

I don’t want to write about money. Would much rather write about how to help teachers thrive in their work, or how to bring them the frameworks other professions have developed for sustainability, or how teaching work is beautiful and understandable through our other experiences of beauty.

But here’s the thing about teaching in North Carolina: it’s a tough way to make a living.

That’s the inescapable reality, and it has been heading that way for the last several years. I’ll let the NCAE break it down:

North Carolina’s public education system continued its five year decline in the NEA Rankings & Estimates report released on Tuesday and now holds the 48th (out of 51, including DC) spot in both teacher pay and per pupil spending.

According to the study, North Carolina teachers earn an average salary of $45,947 annually compared to their national colleagues earning $55,418. North Carolina — once a leader in the southeast — is now ranked 11th among southeastern states only besting Mississippi in average teacher compensation.

However, Mississippi ranks above North Carolina in the per pupil spending category by investing $9,427 per student and climbed to 36th in national rankings from last year. North Carolina now spends $8,433 per student and is only beating Texas, Utah and Arizona.

North Carolina topped one list on the report as the state with the steepest decline (-15.7%) in teacher salaries from 2001-2012 after adjusting for inflation. (Contributing to the decline in pay includes the loss of ABC bonuses/”merit” pay, reduction and elimination of mentor pay, retirements of teachers earning higher salaries without being replaced, and other factors.)

We are reaping a whirlwind here: the inevitable piling-up of all the ways in which teaching work has become nearly impossible to do well in the current climate of measure-to-manage and drill-and-kill (here’s an articulate casualty). But also of the impossibility of North Carolina teachers organizing for their own self-protection, and their resulting vulnerability to the steady drip-drip offensive against the nature of the work.

Exhibit A: witness the speedy demise of the radical idea that knowing more about one’s subject and one’s craft lets you do better by your students. Bill Gates and his local friends question the value of graduate study for work that, in their eyes, seems simply a matter of following “best practice” instructions accurately. Who needs a thought in their head to do what they’re told?

The national swirl of suspicion of teachers as this generation’s welfare queens reached a peak with Waiting for Superman’s hateful, false, and well-produced broadside (and the latest effort from these folks happily died the death a bad movie should – no, I’m not linking to it). Attacks on organized teachers seemed irrelevant to our state’s non-organized workforce, of course – but the charter school rhetoric sure rang true, as we eliminated the cap on the number of charter schools in NC in 2011, opening the floodgate for a complete restructuring of our most cherished public institution under the flag of competition and market-based reforms. These changes are bad for access and equity, and lead to resegregation as well as a host of other ills (others have debunked the pro-charter school argument better than I, but the bunk is plentiful and toxic, so I’m pitching in best I can).

How about this? The most dangerous idea in teaching seems to be its most sacred truth: that we teach because we love the children. The sense of vocation I work to nurture in my students – a sense of calling and purpose, a deep knowledge that they are doing something crucial in the way that only they can do it – is regularly perverted as a rationale for denying them fair or livable compensation for doing it. If you love it, why in the world would you want to be paid for it? Witness this simpering example; the rhetorical gambit is everywhere, and is expertly debunked here.

The way these exploitations and systematic de-fangings align with old, seemingly intractable, gender inequities is clear and present. Most teachers are women; this issue is a gender issue, and “77 cents on the dollar” doesn’t fully reach the issue of teacher compensation, I don’t think. This week’s terrific history of feminism on PBS recalls for me Grumet and others’ explications of how the desire to be with kids becomes a liability in a culture that resiliently associates nurture with weakness and turns the deep desire to care among our (still) overwhelmingly female teacher force into a weapon used against them.

So many others are making this argument better than I can, actually. Here’s Dave Eggers in 2011 in the New York Times, bulletproof stats from the NEA, a heartbreaking but certainly typical vignette from the Huffington Post. It’s left to me today to fume and try to speak the truth I can best tell: that a sense of vocation must not be seen as an obligation to give up the best of oneself without hope for recovery. I am still troubled by The Giving Tree and its presence in the imaginary of many of my students as an icon of powerful, lasting love: the tree ends up a stump, folks. Is that sustainable practice?

More than half of early-career teachers in North Carolina are gone before five years are up. Certainly our issue is not only new teacher retention; attrition affects the profession at all levels, and the loss of an experienced teacher is a different and equally-damaging tragedy than the departure of a new one. But those are the folks I work with every day, so their plight most consumes me. Where do they go? Do they do the calculus of how little their most sacred impulses are valued and respond by leaving to seek a more amenable setting?

I yearn for a change of heart among policy makers in NC: a renewed understanding that public school teacher salaries are not a place to find needed savings. That the political absence of institutional power afforded teachers does not justify the steamrolling of their interests. Our state’s education leaders get this. Why don’t our legislators?

The first rumblings of similar changes to my state’s university teachers are being heard in the responses to the current UNC system strategic plan. Students of the history of educational policy see where things are heading, and many of us are not happy. The difference between our plights – among many similarities – is that we are disposed to organize and talk and write and be heard. Next month will see a state-wide conference (watch this space) to expose, decry, and organize against these moves; we’ll see its outcome. Teachers can’t do this kind of mobilization as easily, by law as well as by disposition, tradition, and culture. Who will speak for them? We hope to help them find voice to speak for themselves, of course – but we also should speak in their support.

I have a personal dog in this fight, as my kids are taught every day by excellent, committed members of the North Carolina teaching cadre. The people the students I’ll teach today hope to become. May they, and all my state’s teachers, not believe the hype that their best impulses can and should be exploited as the reason why they should not be paid their worth.

So: An ugly post for an ugly topic. (Here’s a beautiful piece on a similarly ugly topic, btw – so good, go read it). Now what?

image from opensecrets.org, apparently from bigstock; no infringement intended.

what I saw from where I stood

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(This post might contain descriptions that are disturbing to a non-medical reader. I can’t really judge their effect, which is sort of the point. Caveat lector.)

In my five years doing curriculum work at a large state medical school, I saw unimaginable things which somehow became quotidian, part of the fabric of the day. Their strangeness only pops again in memory, looking back there from here. I’ve been hit by these memories a few times in the last month, probably because I am teaching the “Narrative in the Caring Professions” course again this semester, which takes many of its texts from medicine and medical education (especially Christine Montross’s excellent meditation on the role of gross anatomy in physician formation).

My office was in one of the older buildings. The med campus is a Habitrail of structures, built in the fits and starts of annual budgets and bond referendums and patched together after the fact by improbable tunnels and covered bridges. My building stood almost at the center; part of its oldest construction, a three-sided “C” of a building hidden behind the new Health Science Library wedged into the courtyard between its legs.

A surgeon colleague was also an historian, and she turned me on to a terrific history of the place, from which I learned that my office was directly beneath the original animal lab. Dogs used for research were exercised on the roof above my head.

There was a kerfuffle during my time there: the human anatomy lab was to be moved to its historic location at the end of our hall while its more modern and antiseptic home was closed for a few years of refurbishing. Suddenly, curriculum committee meetings were consumed with the practical questions resulting from that change: where will the students change out of their street clothes into the coats and cover-ups needed for the grisly business of dissection? Is the refrigerator in the hall by the entrance large enough – and reliable enough – to manage the storage of tissue samples that will be required? The staff in my office were concerned that the smell of formaldehyde would permeate everything, how the floor’s bathroom sinks would be left when they were used twice weekly by med students scrubbing up after being elbow-deep in cadaveric chest cavities. This is where we rinse our lunch Tupperware, after all. Oh – and where would they put their backpacks?

Maybe the most disturbing thing I saw, though, wasn’t gory or smelly in the least. It was the curriculum of the course that met right across the hall from me, which on some days would make study of several dozen lunch tray-sized Plexiglass slides. Each slide encompassed, I was told, a micro-thin slice of a human cadaver, on the transverse axis, like the way your wear your belt. I was told this was a sample set prepared and acquired at great expense – the preserving and cutting and mounting of such samples required very sharp saws, very precise measurements – and that the entire set, stacked one on top of the other, would yield a visible man perfectly sliced for inspection. I awoke this morning with a dream remnant of such a slide (thus the writing): a torso sample, I think, looking for all the world like a porterhouse steak when perceived straight on, organs and muscles and bone and fat offering topographies unrecognizable as human unless you knew what you were seeing.

This was all disturbing and shocking to me. Like my sink-concerned colleagues, I was an educator, not a physician. I had not been through the dissection ritual myself in my training, and was therefore not inured to the involuntary physical and emotion reactions to the presence of so much death: not trained do do things that, in another context, would be considered pathological. It really messed with me for a while.

I became worried about what I might bump into in the elevators coming in and out of the office, what gurney, what dolly, carrying what unimaginable horror. Any unexpected smell startled me during the semester lab was in session, and I made a wide berth around the corner of the building where it was located whenever I needed to go somewhere. I remember working to ape the tone of mild annoyance that my physician friends brought to the thing, as if the mudroom were locked and everyone had to leave their coats and boots in the hall. Inconvenient, but no more. In hindsight I see I was having a reaction to trauma, albeit a mild one, but at the same time I spent lots of energy on managing it, getting on with the day. Typing scope and sequence charts while pretending I was just in an office, nothing going on down the hall but more typing.

So why blog this horrorshow? I am not sure. Thinkers about the role of narrative in medicine note that there can a confessional nature to it – a desire among those who do and witness horrible things to tell their stories. Maybe for the prurient zing of it, maybe for absolution, maybe just to “process it” and make the unmanageable no-time of memory into reality by rendering it in the time and place of story. Probably all true here.

The main thing it has me thinking about is what we lose in the process of learning to do what we must for someone else’s gain. I am coming to see that the process of preparing to be of most use as a caring professional inevitably requires the putting away of – or at least changing of – some parts of who we were before beginning the transformation. To become allopathic physicians, regular humans must put off their native abhorrence of human gore, must learn somehow to objectify the structures of a body in every way identical to their own so that they may better regard it analytically, critically, diagnostically. And perhaps manipulate it in ways unimaginable to the layperson: rebreak an arm, re-open an infected wound. We give ourselves up to inhumanity, the better to practice humaneness, goes the logic.

It’s a logic that permeates K-12 education too. We must learn as teachers to detach from our assumptions about what what we are seeing in our students’ learning difficulties and be able to break our perceptions down into verifiable observations (trouble on reading comprehension quizzes, say), which we might account for through any number of hypothesized causes (attention issues? receptive language processing? dysgraphia? memory?) the better to choose interventions and accommodations. In education, we hope that dispassionate analysis of the outcomes of what we do leads to the sophistication of our hypothesis, and therefore more accurate selection of differentiation strategies. Put another way: we have to dehumanize the kid to see how she is really doing, unobscured by how she reminds us of our niece and therefore we are kind of sweet on her, because our sweetness will get in the way of what we have to do.

Even the specialized language of our tribe serves sometimes to distance and scientize. See how easily I slipped into it a few lines back? Shop talk like that is protective of the people who use it. The precision of technical language is of course enormously helpful, but we rarely acknowledge how we sometimes brandish it to obscure our own uncertainty about the causes of what we are seeing, murmuring big words to convince ourselves that we are competent to meet the challenge because we have done the reading. We hide behind our big words from the core truth of how little we can really know about what someone needs to be able to learn. We hope the big words will conjure certainty and precision and success for our efforts to support what, at the end of reckoning, remains the irreducibly singular and unknowable experience of learning for any single person.

Are we in education ever capable of horror toward the effects of our dispassionate gaze? We should be, I think – especially as we persist in the fantasy that by slicing the outcomes of our work thinner we’ll somehow be able to see more. Data-driven “best practices” and airtight cause-and-effect reasonings for instructional decisions blind as frequently as they reveal. Data and logic used compassionately, subjectively, in institutions that allow time and space and support for individual teacher attention to the needs of individual students: that’s the ideal combination, what we really need. We must subordinate the empirical finding (and subsequent indication for “best practice”) to the ultimate judgment of a well-trained, well-supported, well-respected teacher.

We’d expect no less for our physicians, or other caring professionals: we acknowledge they hold life and death, happiness and suffering, in their hands, and give them what they need to reckon it. But we’re increasingly willing to see our teachers as mere end-point delivery agents of products we force into their hands, and demand measurements of their effectiveness that mock the complexity of their task. This disparity of professional regard harms the professional, of course, but the damage to a generation resulting from this misguided approach to what teachers do is yet be calculated.

So let’s acknowledge the horrors that can accompany dispassion, and make space to hear the stories of what learning really looks like. Then we’ll use our energy best and meet the needs of our students; we’ll sustain our own practice with authentic connection, not the estrangement borne of trauma.

I stole my title from Marisa Silver’s terrific short story about trauma, which I originally discovered in the Maine Humanities Council’s excellent anthology Imagine What It’s Like. Image from somewhere online – sorry, I lost the attribution.

dithering

dithering

Author’s note: an expansion of this post has been published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Chuck Jones had strong thoughts about strong lines, and anything on the subject from a man who could make a rabbit into Brunhilde should be closely attended. Here he is on his drawing education in 1989’s Chuck Amuck:

Chouinard in Los Angeles offered excellent schooling in the fine arts – painting and drawing in the classic traditions. But the most important and stunning discovery I made at Chouinard, one that has been shared by every artist, cartoonist, painter in history, from Cro-Magnon art to Claes Oldenburg by way of Leonardo, Goya, Frans Hals, Van Gogh, Herblock, and Beatrix Potter, was the ability to live by the single line – that single honest delineation of the artist’s intent. No shading, no multiple lines, no cross-hatching, no subterfuge. Just that line. Was it Feininger or Kandinsky who said, “My little dot goes for a walk”? Just so, every point on a line is of equal importance. That is rule 1 of all great drawing. There is no rule 2.

Maybe this assertion most impressed me because it nailed everything that was wrong about my own drawing. When I was in fifth grade I wanted to learn to draw, and acquired a book to that end. I had seen a tiny ad in the back of Boys’ Life that claimed to be able to teach drawing; your talent could be discerned by copying a smiling little turtle head wearing a jaunty cap, which you would send in to the address listed and await further instructions.

I was awful at it, but I do remember that the book advised making hundreds of tiny, light lines instead of bold ones. As I tried to copy the cartoony elephants and tigers, I did so with little scratches that made the outline seem faint, furry, barely there. When I got into art class in middle school, Mr. Foster (myopic, lavender sweater, stank of cigarettes) admonished me to knock that off: to make a single, confident line if I was going to make any line at all and stop dithering about. “Dithering” being the memorable word, suggestive of weak moral fiber and faint intention. Mr. Foster called me out for my indeterminacy as clearly as Chuck did. Stop scratching around the edge and draw, already.

We imagine ourselves drawing a strong line in our daily practice as caring professionals. The culture expects us to. Johnson & Johnson is running a powerful Campaign for Nursing’s Future right now, including several commercials. The first one I saw was muted, but the images did the work: a smiling woman confidently offering a drink to a bedridden one, strong, tender, knowing hands smoothing a blanket around and under tired, wrinkled ones. The stock teacher pictures that run next to every ed policy story in every newspaper show the same: smiling people in front of whiteboards and Smartboards, mouths open in mid-declaration of something surely known and asserted to a room full of occupied desks with raised hands. There she is again in Verizon’s “Telepresence” ad, which touts the wonderful advances technology can bring education but knows better than to mess with the smiling, confident teacher in front of the chalkboard.

In other words, effective caring professionals don’t dither. They execute with clear eyes and clean hearts (“no shading, no multiple lines, no cross-hatching, no subterfuge…”). But those who work to prepare caring professionals are beginning to see the dangerous shortcomings in training for such confidence. They include arrogance, inability to collaborate or learn from mistakes or, ultimately, to actually have a connection with the one you’re caring for. It’s well-documented in medical schools and emerging in nursing and social work – the push for expertise and algorithmic accuracy in diagnosis and treatment (“best practices,” we call it in education) tragically undermines the actual capacity to care.

I remember a simulated joint-care exercise I observed years ago at a medical school, where teams of students from medicine, nursing, OT, social work, and nutrition worked with a standardized patient who had been in a car accident. They would take history, then conference and develop a care plan before sharing the plan with the SP. As soon as the SP left the room, the single med student began barking orders to everyone else about what they should do next. The nursing student was first, and her to-do list was long. She listened until he was done, then asked respectfully, “Doctor, have you checked her for allergies? If she’s allergic, three of those medications could kill her.”

There it is: the uncomfortable notion that someone else might know something that your training has made invisible to you. That’s a truth that can and should trouble our equanimity as well-trained professionals. The real world has a way of doing that – messing up our best ideas and intentions with stubborn reality, asserting how the map is never, ever the territory (and we might not even have the right map).

Which gets us back to that unlovely word, “dithering.” What’s it mean? What can it tell us?

…one of the earliest [applications] of dither came in World War II. Airplane bombers used mechanical computers to perform navigation and bomb trajectory calculations. Curiously, these computers (boxes filled with hundreds of gears and cogs) performed more accurately when flying on board the aircraft, and less well on ground. Engineers realized that the vibration from the aircraft reduced the error from sticky moving parts. Instead of moving in short jerks, they moved more continuously. Small vibrating motors were built into the computers, and their vibration was called dither from the Middle English verb “didderen,” meaning “to tremble.” Today, when you tap a mechanical meter to increase its accuracy, you are applying dither, and modern dictionaries define dither as a highly nervous, confused, or agitated state. In minute quantities, dither successfully makes a digitization system a little more analog in the good sense of the word (Ken Pohlmann, Principles of Digital Audio, as quoted in Wikipedia).

Seen through these eyes, maybe “dithering” isn’t a distraction from effectiveness: maybe it’s a part of it. It helps aspirations to precision and comprehensiveness actually work out in the real world, making our best machines “more analog in the best sense of the word” by grooving the 1s and 0s of algorithmic practice into actual peaks and valleys (not for nothing is analog sound “warmer” to the audiophile’s ear than digital, methinks).

When I know to look for it, I see arguments for dithering in the many of the wisest words I know about teaching, caring, and living an involved life. There’s Parker Palmer, describing how one of the century’s most insightful scientists said her best advice to neophytes was to learn to “lean into the kernel,” to get a sense of the actual lived experience of the thing you hope to understand by introducing the unique noise of life into your analysis and deliberation. Over here there’s a powerful article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on how to prevent compassion fatigue through the important usual suspects (reflective writing, meditation), but also a startling description of “exquisite empathy,” a state of sustainable connection born of leaning in to the very situations and tensions we thought caused burnout in the first place.

And here we have Pema Chodron describing a state of equanimity before the daily travails of life – ceasing to struggle with the challenges of attachment, coming into abiding compassion with yourself as path to enlightened empathy with other.

The basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than struggling against, and what I mean by that is working with your own untwined, unacceptable stuff, so that when the unacceptable and unwanted appears out there, you relate to it having worked with loving-kindness for yourself. Then there is no condescension. This nondualistic approach is true to the heart because it’s based on our kinship with each other. We know what to say, because we have experienced closing down, shutting off, being angry, hurt, rebellious, and so forth, and have made a relationship with those things in ourselves (pp. 146-147).

That would be the deepest admission of the noise of actual living into ourselves of all, would it not? Embracing all our personal human dithering as part of the ride, “leaning into it” and, therefore, embracing it in those we seek to care for?

So “dithering” is way deeper than being “nervous, confused, agitated;” it seems to involve talking back to the judgment of dissolute intention I heard in Chuck Jones’ call to a confident line as “rule 1 for drawing well.” Perhaps it even includes a “trembling” before what we cannot ultimately understand, an acceptance of how ultimately inaccessible the deepest human processes of “healing,” “learning,” “connecting” are to our most assiduous assays to understand and regulate and predict and contain them.

This becomes the province not only of Palmer, but also M.C. Richards and Rachel Naomi Remen, who have also begun to map the reality of lived experience with healing and teaching, how completely any honest student of either must eventually admit how little we know and seek a deeper connection to a greater power then oneself. I take interest (and not a little pleasure) in how each of these three wise ones began their career in the academy of traditional, rational knowledge, and after earning their impeccable “straight” PhDs left that world to seek better explanations for what they were experiencing. They listened to their “trembling” before what they could not fully grok with the tools they had developed, and left to try to create new ones. Chodron talks about the “refugee vows” taken by those of her Buddhist order – a commitment to leave the quest for security and instead trust the world’s unknown to bring you what you need. It takes courage to take such vows, and I have deepest respect and gratitude for the courage and example of these refugees, and the wisdom they now have to share.

I hope some of that wisdom is coming through here. Of course I still love a confident line and treasure it whenever I find it, in music as well as art. Somewhere I’ve got begun a little exegesis on the wonder of the rising swells of Adele’s “Skyfall,” and my youngest son could give you a better account of the joy of the strong line (a.k.a. “killer hook”) in fun.’s “Some Nights” than I could, which we agree is the single of the year and everything that’s right about pop music. Strong lines everywhere. Lovely.

But for actual connection with actual people, let us have less assertiveness and more attending; less fake-it-till-you-make-it and more reverence before what you (or we) really don’t fully know yet. That’s a unique and precious comfort we can offer. I wonder if it might not be part of the “maturity” the anonymous author of “Let Us Have Medicos of our Own Maturity” seeks in his caregivers:

Let us have medicos of our own maturity,

For callow practitioners incline to be casual

With a middle-aged party…

Let our medical attendants be of compatible years,

Who will think of us as in certain ways their peers.

Who know what we possible still have to live for,

Why we are not unfailingly poised to withdraw…

Then permit us to be appreciative and appreciated

A little in our final fruition, however belated.

Image from Michael Gordon’s blog on digital printing, with thanks.

ETEWAF

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It stands for “Everything That Ever Was Available Forever,” and is used by tech and futurist types to describe the state of our present relationship with information. I thought about it briefly last year in my blog post about “otaku,” the state of being expert in something obscure and therefore cool. Patton Oswalt’s great Wired piece asserted that ETEWAF made otaku meaningless as both individual achievement and social state: if anyone could just read A.V. Club’s Gateway to Geekery on Frank Zappa and suddenly “know Kung Fu,” then what the heck was the point? We all could pass as otaku; we just had to invest the requisite fifteen minutes.

My school’s motto is lovely: “Esse Quam Videri,” “to be rather than to seem.” It was my intent upon entering college and grad school to become actually erudite: deeply knowledgable about things. Which things I had not really worked out, but smart things. You knew them when you saw them. The things smart people already knew (E.D. Hirsh become flesh, natch: knowledge as social currency first, actual utility after if at all). Oswalt is struggling with the “seeming” winning out over the “being” in the arcane pursuits that gave meaning to his childhood and the adult he became. I primarily wanted to seem more than to be: to seem like someone who read the Iliad and Shakespeare.

I guess I succeeded. I was a predictably insufferable undergrad at home on break (“look what I read and how it explains everything and calls you all out on your benighted lives”), though in hindsight I knew little and talked much. I was very concerned about appearing well-educated. About seeming to be someone who had extracted the hidden knowledge of the culture and was therefore a more authentic member of it. But I was CONCERNED, is the point. I knew there were things I did not know, and for reasons good or poor was hell-bent on finding them out.

It’s the perceived difference between me and my current students that has me writing here, especially the difference in how we navigate ETEWAF culture. I am a voracious Googler. I love that in thirty seconds I can have Wikipedia-level information on whatever I barely care to know more about. That capacity is an essential part of my daily life.

Actual stuff I know more about than I did twenty-four hours ago:

– Whether Topol toothpaste is better than other whitening brands (no, and is probably more dangerous to tooth enamel because it is off the charts on the Relative Dental Abrasive (RDA) index and the ADA hasn’t even given the stuff its seal of approval);
– whether or not Britney Spears ever emerged from the “swamp thing from hell” stage she was viciously portrayed as by Rolling Stone in 2008 (by the quality of her last outing, I think so – hope so, the poor dear);
– what the heck Naropa University is, and what studying education must look like in a Buddhist-inspired setting.

I did not start the day wanting any of this; it wasn’t on any syllabus prepared for me. My capacity to navigate the culture and have power in it is only marginally impacted by this knowledge (maybe I’ll impress someone someday with the Naropa thing, come off as more detached than I really am in a context where that’s valued or something). My teeth will be healthier for it, for sure. It’s not earth-shaking insight. The point is that I wanted to know something and went out and learned it.

And I do not know if many of my students in the last twenty-four hours would have shared my curiosity about any of this, or seen any of it as the sort of thing that one might learn more about through a few keystrokes.

I frequently ask my students to Google the authors we read for a just a minute or two before class, and reinforce the expectation by discussing what they found out first before we get into the stuff itself (lots of chances to show what you know, get teacher praise for your initiative, etc etc). Most of our authors have Wikipedia pages; none are obscure. Almost no one ever, ever does it. Why? Is the course so dull that the people we read in it must be dull too? Evals tell me no: it’s not a dull course, most find it the most relevant thing they have done in college so far. So why not venture out there for three minutes without a syllabus and find out more?

I am beating around a pretty obvious bush, I fear. When the pantry is always full, we cease knowing what it is to be hungry or even valuing the food we eat. As people join a culture where anything they want to know is easily knowable, they naturally become less interested in actually going out to find it. The wonder of a full cupboard or a lightning-fast Google search (even though it has to go to space) isn’t a wonder any more. Paradoxically, we explore and exploit it less because of its richness and effortlessness.

We also become exquisitely sensitive to the slightest discomfort in our engagement with it: the most insignificant gaps between our desires and reality become onerous. Here I am thinking of David Foster Wallace’s famous cruise ship essay (1), where he ends admitting that after a week of gargantuan luxury and indulgence, he pulls into port next to another ship and can’t help but notice how the other ship seems just a shade whiter, it’s umbrellas’ stripes just a shade more vibrant. There’s his thesis, and sort-of mine: satisfaction of every need leads us to be fine-tuned to those needs, and to create appetites that aren’t sated in a never-ending solipsistic free fall into ourselves (the interruption of which is the great theme of his work).

So what can we do to help the generation that never wanted for information come to value it again, even seek it and desire to organize and use it? I am a teacher, after all: getting young people to want to do that, and helping them develop the skills and dispositions to do it, is what I am spending my life on.

There may be some insight in Elizabeth Kolbert’s terrific New Yorker piece on spoiled children. Here our author compares the self-sufficiency and apparent equanimity with her place in the world of an Amazonian six year-old with the apparent helplessness and querulousness of a typical North American one.

So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with.

She wonders if the solution needs to include more benign neglect of children’s needs, the better for them to understand both their relation in the world to other’s needs (i.e., others have them) and to develop the context in which they have to learn to Do Things. And only in the context of having to do things will they actually learn to do them, and thereby develop the requisite self-confidence to try to do something else. It’s a developmental cycle that we paradoxically interrupt when we try to give them some further advantage – which parents of a certain class and social place do a lot, for some very logical emergent meritocratic reasons. It’s a great piece, you should read it (2).

I take from the piece NOT a conviction that my students are spoiled or so different from “the way we used to be.” That’s poisonous, and I have seen senior faculty become intensely bitter by believing it. Rather, I think it means that the developmental mechanisms of capacity and “self-efficacy” are closely aligned with the exigencies of actual need to figure stuff out yourself and then surprise yourself with your own competence.

This realization has big curricular implications for me: perhaps I need to put my students in higher-stakes settings where they must find stuff out for themselves, are made uncomfortable by the demand so they’ll do it and then see the payoff of having done it and use that self-knowledge to reinforce their confidence in doing it again. Concretely: maybe I start giving pop quizzes, where some info is not “in the readings” but out there to be found and synthesized? I hate “Web quest” scavenger hunt-style activities, but maybe something more independent where more varied (and authentic) outcomes are valued. I am actually pulling together a doc seminar right now that seeks to support advanced grad students in developing autonomy and self-confidence as readers, researchers, and synthesizers of previous thought toward their own. This challenge is everywhere.

I loathe how many talks and resources about “milennials” (the generation I teach) emphasize that they are so deeply different from me, their values so inscrutably remote from mine that all I can do is throw up my hands and let them Pinterest when they should be participating in class discussion. I think it’s on me to help them thrive in their information environment, to come into their own as ETEWAF surfers as well as masters of the curriculum I bring.

Apologies if this turned into teacher-talk inside baseball, but it’s eating my lunch as a teacher and I don’t think I (we) are doing enough about it. The ETEWAF world is a tremendous opportunity: how do we as teachers help our students use it to their own growth and strength and capacity? That’s part of our job. Some of my past students track this blog, I think: anyone want to weigh in?

1 – I know I am obsessed with the guy, but I come by writing about it again honestly. I am giving a paper on him in a few weeks, for crying out loud, calm down.

2 – I was personally amazed yesterday to witness my nine year-old make better pancakes than I can, with minimal supervision from my wife. I would not have given him the chance to, probably. Point exactly.

NB – I deliberately drafted this whole thing on an iPad in iA Writer, an app that eliminates all other distractions and just makes you focus on the words themselves – not the hyperlinks, formatting, etc. I am trying it in blogging to see if it helps make my prose more lucid and arguments more forthright than my usual laptop-pounding. Feedback?

I can’t remember where I got the image; New York Time several months ago, I think. Apologies, will cite when I find it.

negligent privacy

I first heard this phrase last year, from an elementary school assistant principal in my doctoral seminar. She said it was a term of art being used in discussions of school security: it describes aspects of a school’s physical and social landscape that provide spaces for dangerous or undesirable behavior to take place. The placement of video cameras such that they couldn’t see around corners, the fact that no one knows what happens in the bathrooms, that sort of thing. The goal of school security plans being to eliminate and police those sites as much as possible.

I was disturbed by the concept, and how it connected to broad worries about the surveillance state, Foucault etc etc, and read its anxiety in light of various observations (Laclau and Mouffe, Scott and Princess Leia) that proliferation of top-down attempts to control an environment only multiply the sites where opposition can take place. Which in turn invites more overreach by authorities into privacy, ad infinitum. It’s a fool’s game to try to exhaust the possibilities of bad things that could happen and control them all. Better, much better, to empower and trust local actors to make their best judgments according to the local needs that only they can fully understand.

The term came back to mind yesterday morning as I heard a horrifying story on NPR about Spain’s “ninos robados“: the 300,000 children over fifty years who were taken from their parents and sold to other parents to be raised in different families. This arrangement was justified under Franco as a state effort to eliminate “social distortion.” If the birth parents were judged too poor or potentially Marxist (and we have to assume the two were seen as one), their offspring would be better raised by good, well-off, Franquista families, and the $25,000 that changed hands along the way didn’t hurt anyone either. The birth parents were told their babies had died, and the handoff happened secretly. Now, in retrospect, Spain is undergoing an unthinkable nightmare of collective reckoning with its past (though not an unfamiliar one, around here). Empty coffins are being unearthed; hospitals have destroyed decades of records; aging nuns won’t talk about it, claiming perverted oaths of patient / caregiver privilege. Privacy abused, state-sanctioned exploitation, complicity, unthinkable legacies of pain.

This was ample horror with which to begin the day, but of course it got much, much worse with the unimaginable news from a little elementary school in Connecticut. I was asked yesterday if I had a different reaction to the horror as a teacher and a teacher-of-teachers because it took place at a school. Are educators more vulnerable than the rest of us? Are children? To which I must reply, no. Education is not merely a social institution like others, because we have all been children, have all loved children, and most of us have them. A wound to other people’s children is a wound to ours, and to us. This is why discussion of political and social violence being wreaked upon American schools is not the purview of education professionals, but of all of us. This is why yesterday’s horror is not a school issue.

My libertarian friends will perhaps be surprised to hear that I do not think that increased school security is a useful response to this tragedy. I think that would be another example of increasing oversight and thereby multiplying opportunities to skirt it, while drawing resources from better options. I am convinced by findings that increased TSA surveillance of air travel has not made travel demonstrably safer. I am convinced that top-down efforts to police student achievement have not made our schools demonstrably better. I think top-down oversight has diminishing returns, and does unintended and unforeseen damage to selfhood and dignity and respect and autonomy.

But I also wonder on this bleak morning whether gun-control policy in our nation does not constitute a true “negligent privacy,” as it allows for spaces in which horrible technologies of violence can be bought and sold next to furnace filters and christmas trees (the case in my town). The type of guns that can be bought and sold by citizens matter. Speed kills. Yesterday’s furious outcry at the Press Secretary’s initial statement that “today is not the day” to talk gun-control policy suggests that many feel the same this morning. I am warily encouraged by the President’s early indications that maybe he’ll see fit to use his second-term cultural capital to correct these egregious misreadings of the rights to a “well regulated militia” that we supposedly enjoy. I hope for at least a renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban as a step toward sanity in this matter. I think. I am not expert in this debate, and do not know what is enough. But the current situation cannot stand.

This is hard to work out, too, because teaching is private practice, always, and to entrust your child to a teacher is to trust her to act in your stead behind a closed door. This is developmentally, socially, and culturally part of education: giving up our children to our teachers. Therefore we must work hard to choose people of good judgment and character to do the work, to support them in developing the skills and dispositions that support them in making sure that all students can learn, to enable them to use the trust and respect we accord them through their autonomy in the best and most useful ways. Privacy in teaching is not negligent. Not helping future teachers develop an understanding of the trust placed in them, is.

So, how do we get up this morning? Some of us sit down and try to write their way through to how to keep going (the real end of real theory, after all).

First I mourn fiercely the senseless loss of of so many beautiful, defenseless children. I have no rights in this matter – except the primary, cardinal rights we all have as children once, as parents, and members of the human family. They suffice.

Second, I mourn and honor the teachers who died in yesterday’s horror: their consecration to their students’ well-being and their willingness to give their lives to their protection.

And finally, I honor those lost by working to transform pain into change. May we correct, finally, the errors in our national experiment about gun policy. And may we honor the hundreds in Connecticut who wake today to torn lives by honoring those who teach their children with the autonomy and trust and respect and care they deserve.

Thanks to Sarah Skwire for the Roethke poem. 

hideous teachers

Just finished Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, and am left with a compulsion to write about it combined with a nauseating (not nauseous) sense of my incapacity to really do so. I am self-conscious writing about DFW, because a deep relationship with his stuff is almost required among hyperarticulate white men of a certain age (mine, to about ten years on either side). Debates among us about whether or not many of us “get” him is one of the practices that make us so insufferable: we are so sure that he spoke just to us, I think, that we bristle at someone else saying what he meant to them.

In any case, his work meant a LOT to me. This is not my first attempt to write it: just after his suicide in 2008, I worked with the friend who turned me on to him to write a hastily-assembled tribute that got down a lot of the personal pain but missed much reflection on what his work made possible in my own life.[1] So let me come in a different door here: what DFW tells me as a teacher, and maybe from that apercu on to deeper considerations. (Will also try to lighten up on words like “apercu,” though they are sort of a baked-in hazard of reading the guy.)

He taught a lot, at several institutions: his alma mater Amherst, briefly, maybe at Arizona State, I don’t remember, but definitely then on to more sustained gigs at a state college in Illinois (much like mine) and, finally, Pomona. Philosophy at first, then creative writing for years, and finally literature (which he mostly did through popular novels like Carrie and The Silence of the Lambs, not Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor).

As a seminar teacher, he was apparently astounding. There’s a whole cache of internet stuff out there from previous students who reflect on his generosity and intense focus on the quality of their expressions, their engagement with ideas. He completely shunned any reference to his monolithic status as voice of a generation, the post-pomo wunderkind, the Genius Grant recipient and official Next Big Thing, maintaining that he was to be “Dave” and talk about their work, not his. I cannot yet find evidence of anything else anywhere, really: his RateMyProfessors profile (cursed artifact of these panoptic times) has been pulled, of course, but it was reported to concur, in the bald terms that platform always invites (“one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” “tough as shit and can hurt students’ feelings,” “very neurotic and tends to chew tobacco and spit in a cup while lecturing”). A few more telling comments:

He never talked about his work. Not once in the three workshops I took with him. I’ve had numerous professors force their students to read their own work in courses, but he would have been mortified by the idea. There wasn’t a bone in his body that wasn’t humble.

He was the first professor to treat me as something other than a student. He said he was learning something from us, too. He was the kind of mentor whose unassuming personality warranted visits, even when the class was finished and there was nothing academic to discuss. I remember there was always a line of students by the bench outside his office in Crookshank. Those conversations were always rich and I will miss them, almost as much as I will miss him.

As a reader of student writing, he was monstrous. Max’s portrait of his teaching of writing shows someone simply unwilling to let people work beneath their potential. DFW read student work more closely than many of us read our most precious writing: three times, once each for general impression, for literary quality, and once for markup as if it were going to press (in a different color ink each time), and ended with a ton of handwritten or small-font-typed response (here’s an example).

Perhaps part of his hyperfocus was pathological (his tics and obsessions included grammar “SNOOTiness” as well as revulsion against self-consciously artistic or ironic prose). Maybe it was part avoidance of The Work Itself: the task of finding and maintaining the rhythmic discipline to write productively that challenged him his whole career. How else can we understand Max’s reporting of a heartrendingly personal correspondence with Don DeLillo about how to actually DO the work of writing:

Do you have like a daily writing routine? Do you set off certain intervals as all and only time for fiction writing? More important, do you then honor that commitment, day after day? Do you have difficulties with procrastination / avoidance / lack of discipline? If so, how do you overcome them? I ask because I am frustrated not just with the slowness of my work but with the erratic pace I work at. And I ask you only because you seem at least on this end of the books, to be so steady – books every couple of years or so for over two decades and you don’t seem to have an outside job or teaching gig or anything that might relieve (what I find to be) the strain of daily self-starting and self-discipline and daily temptations to dick around and abandon the discipline. Any words or tips would be appreciated and kept in confidence (pp. 235-236).

When taken together with his legendary output of  letters, perhaps the opportunity to lose himself in student work and other lower-impact writing was a way to feel productive while not having to belly-up to the project that was so much harder (I certainly would recognize that behavior, compassionately). Or maybe it’s overly simple – and unfair – to characterize his relationship to teaching as avoidance. Some wonder if his students, and the demands of responding to their work, were part of the structure that enabled him to write:

His attentiveness to his students in particular was beyond generous. I think he needed us, too. We gave him a tangible purpose and a routine: things that writing didn’t always offer (emphasis mine).

All this reflection is prelude to a more serious inquiry I would like to make into Wallace as teacher. I am grateful to Paula Salvio, whose groundbreaking scholarship on the pedagogy of Anne Sexton invites further considerations of other “limit cases of exemplary teachers”: teachers whose pathology (or, perhaps, humanness that refuses to be constrained and disciplined by teacherly role expectations) is both threatening and somehow deeply part of the power of their teaching.

Sexton was a well-documented hideous creature, by most lights: alcoholic, mentally ill, prone to violence, disrespectful of boundaries personal, sexual, and social. Most of these same qualities plagued DFW – differences in degree, but after reading in both lives, not really in kind –  and the act of imagining either of them in the classroom is initally disturbing. Salvio works to get her hands around the nature of that disturbance through Freud (and Lacan’s) description of “uncanny” experience:

The uncanny is really nothing new or alien. Rather, it is something that is ordinary, familiar, “old established in the mind and which has become alien to it…something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light”… (p. 12)

And the project of reading Sexton’s excesses as being of a piece with her pedagogy leads her to great discomfort as she reads Sexton’s papers in the archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin:

The uncanny provokes anxiety because something appears that was already there, something closer to the house, the heim, the host. What suddenly appears at the door of the house, or on the stage, is at once hostile and expected, foreign to and yet embedded in the house. This dangerous conjunction, teacher+addict, teacher+mental illness, transformed the archive into a panic space where all the traditional limits I had clung to as I began to render her teaching life became blurred (p. 45).

I must note a parallel experience – fear of finding something terrifying has been right in front of you the whole time, the Face in the Floor – as I write DFW as teacher. How to reconcile the dangers and damages he apparently wrought, the deep terrors of depression, addiction, and bad boundaries, with the teaching persona his students, without exception, affirm? How to locate the compassionate reader and annotator – paidagogos extraordinaire – within the selfish and self-loathing nature he worked a daily program to overcome but that (according to those who must have best known) still seethed beneath the surface of his serenity?

I am only beginning to make sense of Salvio’s whole argument, but what most moves me right now is how she reckons Sexton’s final assignment, wherein she had her poetry students “write an interview in which they fabricated a persona from the details in Sexton’s poems and lectures”:

You are to fabricate my reply and we will see how close you come as the term moves on….for the first eight classes, there will be in-class assignments. Written work that will let you live the life of a poet. I realize you are not all writers, but you will know a lot more about writing and the way a writer thinks after doing them. And thus will know me better (pp. 40-41).

This assignment, at first blush an appalling exercise in self-absorption or outright narcissism, is unpacked as a risky articulation and subversion of the unspoken expectations that all pedagogues hold that their students come to mirror themselves. When Sexton foregrounds the expectation that students “give the teacher what she wants” (i.e., that they give her back herself) and exaggerates its most-repellent features, she is exploiting the power of “too much” to invite transformation:

By asking to students to approach and then incorporate pieces of her “grotesque” body, and to incorporate aspects of a composing process that contain striking elements of a gross materialism, Sexton raises important questions, not only about the ways that our student imbibe, through spoken and unspoken exchanges, formal and informal, our culture’s body habits, language systems, memories, values, and anxieties, but also how we determine what is normal and what is perverse, what will come in and what we will spit out…the expressed anxieties about this assignment, many of which I also shared, point, I believe, to our reluctance to consider the extent to which we, too, may be complicit in composing a curriculum that is tainted by our own narcissistic attachments (pp. 41-42).

What fascinates about Salvio’s frame as an approach to Wallace is that the difficulty of slipping the bonds of “our own narcissistic attachments” is the one of the core themes of Wallace’s fiction, and arguably (given his long struggle with addiction, and a dozen years of sobriety before his death) of his life. What then do we make of a another monstrous pedagogue who renders his teaching persona as completely – even obsessively – NOT about himself, but scrupulously about the Other, the student?

This is not a benign platitude in DFW’s hands (though that noun wouldn’t scare him: he frequently acknowledged that the deepest lessons of a culture seem like trite platitudes at first). This business of being about the other as a way of finding oneself, of the decentering of oneself being the core challenge of making genuine connections with others. Wallace’s work is littered with characters whose self-obsession leads to inability to interface: see Hal Incandenza’s muteness in the admissions interview that opens Infinite Jest, and more vertiginously (sorry) characters in his work whose self-knowledge is hindered by inability to acknowledge the role of one’s own pleasure in the giving of pleasure to another. We are left with a host of characters who are hermetically sealed within themselves, while striving to appear anything but. The several narrators of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Max notes, are characters who “not only seem to feel nothing; they seem to feel nothing about feeling nothing. They have creepy amounts of self-awareness but no ambition for catharsis. Their hideousness is beyond question” (p. 247).

I think Salvio’s excellent work makes space to consider the teaching of DFW as a study in the outcomes of fastidious focus on the Other; a “limit case of exemplary teaching” as yielding to exploration, I think, as Sexton’s focus on the Self. Likewise adding, then, to the overall critique of what education’s norms allow and disallow as knowing, as connecting, as being – what those cultural structures afford, and what they limit. Which is the crucial ambit of curriculum theory, generally.

Or something like that. There’s a whole gang of something to be done here. I hope to do it.

Image from New York Times.


[1] I sell the piece short, a little: “We faced the fact that The Jest was making us look in a gargantuan mirror that we’d been avoiding for the better part of our tentative and clearly provisional adulthoods.” Will wrote that, and it’s still true. And I think I nailed this bit: “I do remember that—before there were critical treatments of the Jest and its legacy had really gelled, as it is finally beginning to—my first reading perceived the leitmotif of a shapeless head within a frame. Here’s the woman born without a skull and her impossible wheeled prosthesis; there’s that little guy, what was his name, upside down on the Eschaton court with his head buried in a computer monitor; here’s a therapist framing his analysand’s face with a cage made from his fingers; there’s Himself slumped in the kitchen with his head immolated in a microwave. I took all this to suggest our ultimate paucity of intrinsic fiber or substance as humans, that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain—and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril.  That humble and sane proposition remains about the truest thing I know after my near-40 years. It helps me choose the weights against which to pull. And it is no less true because the one who taught it to me has elected to leave.”

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